Decision Number 1230
Appeal of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe Challenging the Action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference
Due to the numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process and the inability to articulate what constitutes "best interests of the bishop and/or the Church" as provided in ¶ 408.3(a) of the 2008 Discipline as amended by the 2012 General Conference, the Judicial Council overturns the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the affirmation given by the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference in placing Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe in involuntary retired relationship. These decisions are null, void, and of no effect. Further, the Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe be immediately reinstated to his rightful status as an active bishop of The United Methodist Church.
The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to an immediate assignment to an episcopal area within the South Central Jurisdiction with restoration of all status, salary, and benefits, retroactive to September 1, 2012, less any amounts for salary and benefits that may have already been paid pending the outcome of this decision. The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to be made whole for all sums, costs, and expenses incurred by him in defense of this action, including, but not limited to, salary, benefits, pension accruals, health, hospitalization, and major medical insurance for himself and his dependents, seniority and tenure of office, relocation expenses, travel and lodging expenses, fees, costs, and related expenses.
This amount will be reduced by any funds already received by any contributions provided for the support of Bishop Bledsoe and his defense. It is further requested that the Judicial Council specifically retain jurisdiction of this cause in order to monitor compliance with the terms of its decision and to ensure that the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the executive body of the South Central Jurisdiction perform and fulfill all acts necessary to effect the full intent of the Judicial Council's decision and to ensure that such acts are completed in a prompt and timely manner. The Chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy is directed to provide this information to the Secretary of the Judicial Council by February 17, 2013.
Statement of Facts
The South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, acting under its constitutional mandate in
¶ 50. Article VI that states in part: The jurisdictional conference shall elect a standing committee on episcopacy to consist of one clergy and one lay delegate from each annual conference, on nomination of the annual conference delegation. The committee shall review the work of the bishops, pass on their character and official administration, and report to the jurisdictional conference its findings for such action as the conference may deem appropriate within its constitutional warrant of power. The committee shall recommend the assignments of the bishops to their respective residences for final action by the jurisdictional conference
and ¶ 412 of the 2008 Discipline which provides for the Review and Evaluation of Bishops, put in place a process to evaluate formally each active bishop of the jurisdiction. The process used a set of questionnaires and follow-up interviews with each bishop by committee representatives and with the full committee. Questionnaires were mailed to all members of annual conference committees on episcopacy along with selected annual conference core leaders and delegates to the General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference in September 2011 and were returned in November 2011. The questionnaires consisted of three parts: the Bishop's Questionnaire including the self-evaluation questions; an overview of the episcopal area including demographics; and quadrennial profile including an assessment by persons affected by his/her general superintendency.
This last part included both open-ended questions and a numerical assessment of the bishop's gifts for ministry and leadership. As a part of the evaluation of all active bishops in the jurisdiction, the Committee reviewed responses to these questionnaires. In addition, each active bishop was interviewed individually by the full Committee (February 6-7, 2012, and May 24, 2012, for Bishop Bledsoe who was out of the country in February) and by an assigned team of members. As a result of Bishop Bledsoe's lower scores in comparison with the other active bishops, the Committee conducted additional interviews. Selected committee members sought personal interviews and/or written statements from members of the North Texas Annual Conference delegation members, episcopacy committee members, pastors, local church lay leaders, and the annual conference lay leader. Representatives of the Committee met with Bishop Bledsoe on March 28, 2012, to share the results of the questionnaire. To complete the evaluation of Bishop Bledsoe, the Committee met with him on May 24, 2012, as had been previously scheduled. As a result of these two meetings, members of the Committee again met with Bishop Bledsoe on May 29, 2012.
At this time, the Committee members had been authorized by action of the Committee on May 24, 2012, to suggest the bishop take voluntary retirement or the Committee would schedule a hearing to take action for involuntary retirement as prescribed by ¶ 408.3(a). As result of these conversations, Bishop Bledsoe announced via video on May 31, 2012, that he would retire on August 31, 2012. At the end of the Annual Conference Session of the North Texas Annual Conference on June 5, 2012, he made a statement saying he would not retire. On June 8, the chair of the Committee sent a letter to the bishop announcing the hearing for involuntary retirement on July 10, 2012. A further letter was sent on June 15th delaying the hearing until July 16th. Neither letter contained written reasons for the hearing. On July 16 and 17, 2012, the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy held a hearing to consider the involuntary retirement of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe. The authority for consideration of involuntary retirement is provided by ¶ 408.3(a) in the 2008 Discipline as amended by the 2012 General Conference.
¶408.3. Involuntary Retirement—a) A bishop may be placed in the retired relation regardless of age by a two-thirds vote of the jurisdictional or central conference committee on episcopacy if, after not less than a thirty-day notice in writing is given to the affected bishop and hearing held, such relationship is found by said committee to be in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church. This action may or may not be taken because of the performance of the bishop, and the reason for the action must be clearly stated in the report of the committee. Appeal from this action may be made to the Judicial Council with the notice provisions being applicable as set forth in ¶ 2716.
An elder, Zan Holmes, accompanied Bishop Bledsoe, had voice, and served as the bishop's advocate. On July 17, 2012, the Committee voted for involuntary retirement with a vote of 24 for, 4 against, and 2 abstentions. All members of the Committee were present for the vote. On July 19, 2012, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference received and affirmed the report of the Committee that included the announcement of the vote for the involuntary retirement of Bishop Bledsoe under ¶ 408.3(a). The vote affirming the report carried by 82%. On July 25, 2012, Bishop Bledsoe filed an appeal under ¶ 408.3(a) to the Judicial Council.
On October 27, 2012, the Judicial Council acted on a request for a declaratory decision from the South Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops as to the constitutionality, meaning, application and effect of the amended ¶ 408.3(a) of 2008 Discipline. This paragraph remains constitutional. See Memorandum 1229. A special meeting of the Judicial Council was held in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 9-10, 2012, to hear the appeal. An oral hearing was held on November 9, 2012. Participating in the hearing were Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, appellant, Jon R. Gray, counsel for Bishop Bledsoe, and Donald House, Chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy.
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶¶ 408.3(a) and 2609.9 of the 2008 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
The appeal of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe of the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference, which affirmed the action of the Committee, is heard under the directives found in ¶ 408.3(a) of the 2008 Discipline as amended by the 2012 General Conference. The notice provisions of ¶ 2716 were adhered to. Within 30 days of the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference (¶ 2716.2), the appellant notified the president of the Judicial Council of his desire to appeal. The meeting on the appeal and oral hearing are occurring within the 180 days prescribed by ¶ 2716.3.
For the purposes of this appeal, the provisions of ¶ 2715 shall not apply as they refer to an investigation and trial process. Likewise, the provisions of ¶ 413 do not apply as no formal complaint was filed. The appeal that is before us involves an "action" taken by the Jurisdictional Committee and affirmed by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference as part of the Committee report to the conference placing Bishop Bledsoe in retired status, involuntarily. This action does not involve a complaint, investigation, or trial. It only involves a process, a set of procedures, and an action taken by the jurisdictional committee and by the jurisdictional conference. Further, since the Judicial Council has ruled that ¶ 408.3(a) "remains constitutional," any arguments about whether the process was constitutional are now deemed to be irrelevant.
We reviewed the process in light of fairness, equity, justice, legality, and timeliness of the process.
Fair Process and Timeliness It is a long-standing policy in The United Methodist Church to handle any administrative or judicial process within guidelines of fair process. Fair process can never be presumed, but it must be clearly demonstrated at all times. The concept of fair process is one that has been engrafted upon the constitutional standards of our Church. Fair process includes the right to receive notice of hearing that advises the respondent of the reason for the proposed action with sufficient detail to allow the respondent to prepare a response. This principle is in question in this instant situation.
Paragraph 408.3(a), regarding the involuntary retirement of a bishop, attempts to provide certain protections against arbitrary decisions by jurisdictional or central conference committees on episcopacy including
(a) thirty day notice in writing to the affected bishop;
(b) a hearing;
(c) evidence for what is in the best interests of the bishop and/or Church;
(d) a clear rationale of the committee's decision;
(e) a two-thirds vote required for committee action; and finally,
(f) the right of appeal. This right of appeal and fair process is guaranteed under ¶ 20 of the Constitution.
The Committee acknowledged this right of fair process as it attempted to establish its guidelines for the hearing scheduled for July 16, 2012. These guidelines for the hearing were articulated in the document presented to Bishop Bledsoe on June 27th, 20 days before the hearing. They are as follows:
We find no instructions in the Book of Discipline or in our review of Judicial Council Decisions regarding process required under the involuntary retirement provision. An important objective of the Committee is to extend to Bishop Bledsoe fairness in our process. In fulfilling this objective, the Committee seeks to accomplish the following:
1. Deliver to Bishop Bledsoe this statement at least 20 days prior to the scheduled hearing that offers selected evidence, testimonies, and other materials our Committee reviewed in preparation for the hearing. The statement is to contain the grounds for our decision to consider involuntary retirement and the support we have assembled-
2. invite the bishop to fully respond to the statement in person before any vote on involuntary retirement is taken.
3. Produce an accurate transcript of the proceedings of the hearing, making a copy for Bishop Bledsoe as soon as possible.
4. Respond, as possible, to the requests of legal counsel representing the bishop
a) Produce a summary of the development of the evaluation process administered by the Committee
b) Produce copies of Committee meeting minutes c) Produce communications between and among members of the Committee related to the process of evaluation. The 2012 General Conference added the sentence in ¶ 408.3: "This action may or may not be taken because of the performance of the bishop, and the reason for the action must be stated in the record of the committee." This condition relates to the 2008 Book of Discipline ¶ 362.b(sic) This condition relates to the 2008 Book of Discipline ¶ 362.a (sic)
As noted from the footnotes, the committee referenced two disciplinary paragraphs in developing its guidelines. Further guidelines for the hearing were presented to the bishop in a letter dated June 29, 2012. The Committee also agreed to receive video depositions and transcripts from persons selected by the bishop's counsel and provided some of the material requested by the counsel including minutes of meetings during the quadrennium and the meetings surrounding the intended action of involuntary retirement. In review of the correspondence provided between the co-counsels and the chair of the committee, it was clear there were different understandings of what constituted "fair process" in this situation. The counsels appeared at points to treat this hearing as a trial format, asking for the opportunity for witnesses and items to be read into the formal record.
The request for the delay of the hearing to adequately prepare a defense was denied by the chair of the Committee. In reviewing the principles of fair process, the item noted above (the right to receive notice of hearing that advises the respondent of the reason for the proposed action with sufficient detail to allow the respondent to prepare a response) is in question. Part of the discussion of fair process centered on the timeliness of material presented to the bishop and counsel and a difference of understanding about what was to be provided in a timely way. Both parties seem to be choosing various parts of the Discipline to ensure "fair process." It was not the understanding of the Committee that a written statement about reasons for the hearing needed to be presented at the time written notice of the hearing was conveyed to the bishop. This statement was only provided 20-days prior to the changed hearing date in conjunction with the statement of hearing procedures. In the brief presented on behalf of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, the following statement was made:
The announcements did not include detail concerning the reason for the hearing since such detail was discussed during the team interview on March 28, 2012 and the full committee meeting on May 24, 2012. A 20-page statement detailing specific reasons for the scheduled hearing was delivered to Bishop Bledsoe on June 27, 2012—exactly 20 days before the scheduled hearing.
Verbal notification does not take the place of written notification. Paragraph 408.3(a) is clear that a 30-day written notification is required. Paragraph 362.2 refers to an administrative complaint against a local pastor, associate member, provisional member or full member. It must be noted that the 20-day notice referenced in ¶ 362.2(b) has followed several other significant processes, including a written complaint, a supervisory response, the referral of an administrative complaint, and the setting of an administrative hearing. By the time the 20 day notice referenced in ¶ 362.2(b) becomes mandatory, a minimum of 165 days has elapsed during which time the supervisory response has unfolded. Both parties used parts of the Discipline that are not appropriate in this instant situation. The Committee decided to use part of ¶ 362.2 that refers to annual conference processes that are invoked when an administrative complaint has been filed against an elder, et al. This is not the situation in this case.
Counsel for the bishop has invoked ¶ 413, the process used in a complaint filed against a bishop. Further, the counsel for the bishop also invoked ¶¶ 2702ff which are the processes that are used in a trial process once a formal complaint has been referred as a judicial complaint. Requests for information made to the committee and for witnesses and/or depositions appear to fit in a trial procedure. Again, this is not the situation in this instant case. No complaint has been filed. No chargeable offense was named by the Committee. It appears that the Committee was cognizant of trying to ensure fair process for the hearing. However, lacking the filing of a complaint or anticipating filing a complaint, the Committee established its own processes and timelines that are not specifically provided by the Discipline. It provided its own interpretation of the section of ¶ 408.3(a) indicating the 30-day written notice requirement as noted above was merely a notification of the hearing.
The counsel for the Church held different expectations about timelines, production of documents and processes as related to the 30-day notice. Confusion and misunderstanding resulted from the lack of clarity of process and the confusion between using the mandated 30-day timeline in ¶ 408.3(a) with the expectation of what is normally understood regarding written notification including time, place and full reasons for the hearing and the Committee's understanding of 20- day requirement cited in ¶ 362.2. An essential element of fair process under church law is the timely delivery of an accurate statement of the reasons for the action proposed. Neither of the notice letters to the Bishop from the Committee contained a statement of reasons for its intended action. Fair process requires that the reasons be given at the time that the notice of the hearing is issued. The failure of the Committee to provide its Statement of Reasons at the time it gave notice of the hearing was a violation of the fair process mandate and of the required aspects of ¶ 408.3(a) that requires a 30-day notice. A further failure of the principles of fair process is contained in the Chair's Statement of Reasons. The Committee minutes of its meeting on May 24, 2012, recorded the decision of the Committee to begin the process for involuntary retirement.
This action was affirmed in the Judicial Council oral hearing. Further, there is a discrepancy between the action of the Committee on May 24th and in the 20 page Statement of Reasons presented to the Bishop on June 27, 2012. The Statement of Reasons does not bring forward or fairly mention the reasons that were actually adopted by the Committee. In fact, the Chair's Statement of Reasons candidly admits the following: "This statement provides a set of opinions with support regarding the effectiveness of Bishop Bledsoe's leadership. This statement does not necessarily reflect a consensus opinion among members of the committee." The chair of the Committee further stated in the hearing that these were "evolving reasons" over time that were modified by further information gathered by the Committee. The principles of fair process require that the decisions of the Committee as recorded in its May 24, 2012, minutes be brought forward into its Statement of Reasons in order to afford the respondent a fair opportunity to address the Committee's stated reasons for its action. Fair process requires that a respondent be presented in a timely manner with copies of all relevant documents and all documents relied upon.
The Committee chose to present the first of the required documents 20 days prior to the hearing. According to the material presented to the Judicial Council, other documents were presented in an unfolding basis at the request of counsel for the Bishop. The Committee's own timeline violated principles of fair process that state that the production of written documents must accompany the notice of hearing. In this regard, the Committee's effort failed. Documentation and oral hearing testimony show that the Chair did not provide some materials and did not believe that providing the materials was necessary for a fair process. A jurisdictional or central conference committee on episcopacy does not have the power to pick and choose portions of the Discipline that it will follow and portions that it will ignore. The Discipline provides no ability for a committee on episcopacy to make use of "alternative" methods of disciplinary process to ensure fair process. Decisions 26 and 156 stand for the proposition that the definition of process is a legislative function reserved to the General Conference and that neither the committee nor a jurisdictional or central conference has license to innovate upon or supply other processes.
Separation of Powers A violation of the separation of powers occurred when the South Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops issued a "decision of law" upon the request of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy officers. Under the long-standing precedent set by Decision 799, a bishop, or in this case, a college of bishops, has no authority to comment on any administrative or judicial process. There is no disciplinary provision for the college to give direction to a jurisdictional committee or for a committee to turn to the College of Bishops in search of advice – to do so violates separation of powers. The College of Bishops lacks the authority to recommend procedural guidelines for the Committee on Episcopacy and the Jurisdictional Conference. See ¶ 16.5. The disciplinary role assigned to the College of Bishops is limited to its cooperation with the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy in the review and evaluation process, the assignment process (¶ 412), and to their presidential duty whereby bishops preside over sessions of the jurisdictional conference (¶ 52). It is inappropriate for the College of Bishops to provide advice, counsel, direction, or assistance to a committee on episcopacy that is considering any involuntary process against an active bishop.
Best Interests of the Church and/or Bishop Paragraph 637 of the Discipline authorizes the annual conference committee on episcopacy to report and articulate the needs of the annual conference to the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy and to make recommendations to the appropriate bodies. The reports of the recommendations are to be made through the elected conference members of the annual conference committee on episcopacy. Under ¶ 412 the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy is required to establish and implement processes that provide for a full and formal evaluation of each active bishop. In its evaluation process, this committee may include other persons such as lay leadership, members of conference cabinets, episcopal peers, and other persons affected by the bishop's leadership. However, ¶ 412 clearly emphasizes the importance of the role of the annual conference committee on episcopacy and mandates the inclusion of the annual conference committee on episcopacy in such evaluation processes. The report of the chair of the North Texas Annual Conference Committee of the Episcopacy indicates that no one had spoken to him about the dissatisfaction surrounding the bishop and the impending action for involuntary retirement.
No statement from the North Texas Annual Conference regarding their episcopal needs was submitted to the Committee or as part of the record. The brief and the additional material presented to the Judicial Council for consideration for both the hearing and this appeal describe the way in which the Committee developed its evaluation process and consultations with the active bishops of the Jurisdiction. The evaluation consisted of three parts: Part A, a personal profile submitted and signed by the bishop; Part B, a demographic and factual analysis filled out by someone in the annual conference; and Part C, an evaluative questionnaire including a gifts analysis that was sent to each member of the episcopacy committee of the annual conference, the core leadership team of the annual conference, and other lay and clergy leaders in the episcopal area. There was no specific soliciting of the annual conferences committees on episcopacy to generate the specific needs for episcopal leadership and to determine the "best interests of the church" in each episcopal area.
The Committee studied the demographics of each episcopal area and the perceived trends. They articulated a sense of urgency to do things differently in order to effect growth in this jurisdiction, especially noting the more careful evaluation of bishops. It was out of this analysis that the evaluation tools were developed for each bishop and episcopal area. From this analysis, the criteria for "best interests of the Church" focused on two areas of church growth: worship attendance and numbers of professions of faith. Some interpretive data were presented in material from church growth and leadership consultants. However, in the Judicial Council's review of the material presented, there seemed to be no one uniform statement of how the material would be interpreted for each bishop. There was no timely articulation of the "best interests for the church in the South Central Jurisdiction."
There was no documentation about what would be the acceptable scores for each of the categories listed. All that was presented in the documentation to this body was the comparison between the low scores of the bishop in question and the remaining 10 bishops' composite score. Further it is noted that the material from one of the consultants was dated June 2012. This material was sought after the process to place the Bishop on involuntary retirement was substantially underway. It was not applied or shared in the evaluation of the other bishops of the jurisdiction. A review of the transcript of the hearing did not reveal any standard of "best interest" that questioners were posing to the bishop. There was no discussion of church growth, worship attendance or numbers of profession of faith. There did not seem to be any place where "best interest" standards were articulated nor was there a statement presented that held up a vision or goals for ministry against which all bishops would be held accountable, let alone in this instant situation. The documentation of the further interview questions that were asked of the leaders of the North Texas Annual Conference were not provided. There was no indication that similar questions were asked of all the participants in the questioning.
The material presented by the Committee in their follow up questioning seemed to focus on those individuals and churches that had problems or issues with the bishop, and/or either the specific district superintendent and/or the bishop within the appointment process. The video depositions provided by counsel for the bishop presented more positive experiences of persons in their interactions with the bishop. These responses did not seem to be acknowledged by the committee members in formal questioning during the hearing. However, nowhere in the material that was presented were discernable underlying criteria used to judge what is best for the church or for the bishop involved. In reviewing the material presented, there were no specific criteria upon which a decision was made. Further, the specific reasons for the recommended action of involuntary retirement of Bishop Bledsoe as mandated by amended ¶ 408.3(a) were not clearly presented in writing to the Judicial Council, nor was the statement of the Committee action in the report presented to the South Central Jurisdictional Conference included in the formal minutes of the Conference.
The Judicial Council finds this oversight in violation of ¶ 408.3(a) and calls into question the determination of what constitutes "best interests of the bishop and/or Church." In most instances the Discipline provides a set of rules and procedures that must be followed. However, as was confirmed by the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, there are no instructions in the Discipline or in Judicial Council Decisions regarding process required under the involuntary retirement provision. Hence, said Committee proceeded as it deemed appropriate and expedient. However, the ambiguities and lack of objective standards of the procedures of the SCJ Committee on Episcopacy were so great that all the parties in the instant case had a different understanding of the process. If the proceedings of the SCJ Committee on Episcopacy were validated, it would create a multiplicity and variety of procedures among the several jurisdictions, establishing different standards for involuntary retirement of a bishop. In accordance with Decision 312, although the legislative history of this old paragraph of the Discipline cannot be ascertained, procedures for the process of the involuntary retirement of a bishop is a matter appropriate for further General Conference action. It would not be appropriate for the Judicial Council to supply this legislation.
In order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding and ensure clarity to the process, the Judicial Council believes that the following guidelines should be adhered to in any process for the involuntary retirement of a bishop under ¶ 408.3(a):
(a) inclusion of the annual conference committee on episcopacy in the evaluation process;
(b) the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy's written notice to the bishop of at least thirty days, with a clear statement of the reasons for such action attached to or placed in the body of the notice;
(c) submission to the bishop, at least thirty days prior to the hearing of all records, documents, etc., relied upon by the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy in the statement of reasons;
(d) a hearing;
(e) finding by the Jurisdictional or Central Conference Committee on Episcopacy that involuntary retirement is in the best interest of the bishop and/or the Church, as clearly defined by the Jurisdictional or Central Committee of Episcopacy.
Due to the numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process and the inability to articulate what constitutes "best interests of the bishop and/or the Church" as provided in ¶ 408.3(a)of the 2008 Discipline as amended by the 2012 General Conference, the Judicial Council overturns the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the affirmation given by the 2012 South Central Jurisdictional Conference in placing Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe in involuntary retired relationship. These decisions are null, void, and of no effect. Further, the Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe be immediately reinstated to his rightful status as an active bishop of The United Methodist Church.
The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to an immediate assignment to an episcopal area within the South Central Jurisdiction with restoration of all status, salary, and benefits, retroactive to September 1, 2012, less any amounts for salary and benefits that may have already been paid pending the outcome of this decision. The Judicial Council orders that Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is entitled to be made whole for all sums, costs, and expenses incurred by him in defense of this action, including, but not limited to, salary, benefits, pension accruals, health, hospitalization, and major medical insurance for himself and his dependents, seniority and tenure of office, relocation expenses, travel and lodging expenses, fees, costs, and related expenses. This amount will be reduced by any funds already received by any contributions provided for the support of Bishop Bledsoe and his defense.
It is further requested that the Judicial Council specifically retain jurisdiction of this cause in order to monitor compliance with the terms of its decision and to ensure that the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the executive body of the South Central Jurisdiction perform and fulfill all acts necessary to effect the full intent of the Judicial Council's decision and to ensure that such acts are completed in a prompt and timely manner. The Chair of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy is directed to provide this information to the Secretary of the Judicial Council by February 17, 2013.
Beth Capen was absent. Kurt Glassco, second lay alternate participated in this decision.
The Discipline has contained a provision for the involuntary retirement of a bishop since 1976. Although the provision may have been invoked or cited from time to time by some jurisdictional or central conference committee on the episcopacy, perhaps as a way of encouraging a bishop to consider voluntary retirement, there is no evidence that it has been used in a fully accomplished process to retire a bishop involuntarily. The action of the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and the action of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference to retire Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe is, therefore, an unprecedented event in The United Methodist Church.
Hence it poses questions that have no history of jurisprudence upon which the Judicial Council can draw for answers. It also poses challenges for any jurisdictional or central conference committee on episcopacy that might consider the possibility of implementing the legislation, as amended by the 2012 General Conference. In this instant case, the record shows that the committee faced those challenges and that, at least in some significant ways, failed to meet all of the challenges. As a result, the process that led to the decision to retire Bishop Bledsoe involuntarily was flawed. The fact that the committee on episcopacy voted overwhelmingly to retire the bishop, and that the jurisdictional conference voted overwhelmingly to affirm the action, do not alter or mitigate the flaws in the process that the committee followed.
Any action under ¶ 408.3(a) must adhere closely and narrowly to the provisions of that paragraph. Those provisions are few, but they are clear. The committee's vote has to have a two-thirds majority. Specific notice provisions are either provided or cited by reference to another paragraph in the Discipline. The reason for the committee's action must be stated in its report to the jurisdictional conference. And placing a bishop in the retired relationship involuntarily must be "found by said committee to be in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church." Adherence to these provisions also prohibits resorting to other provisions of the Discipline that are not included in this paragraph. Even though the committee in this case adhered to the provisions of ¶ 408.3(a) and thereby was in compliance with the Discipline, it did not avoid importing irrelevant provisions into the process.
In the end, it sabotaged its own efforts. The authority to proceed toward the involuntary retirement of a bishop is granted to the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy as an administrative procedure. It does not involve a complaint. It is not part of the complaint process. Its steps do not invoke steps that are specified for the adjudication of a complaint. It specifically empowers a bishop who has been retired involuntarily to "appeal" directly to the Judicial Council, but that is not the same use of the term "appeal" as it applies elsewhere in the Discipline to judicial or other proceedings following a complaint. Nevertheless, the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy chose to import into its proceedings some of the disciplinary provisions and actions that apply in complaint processes, investigations, and trials. None of these is relevant.
Worse, these decisions led to disruptions in fair process by confusing the matters of who was required to do what, by when. Further, the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy relied upon a definition of the "best interests of the bishop and/or the Church" that has no legislative warrant. Nor does the committee's eventual working definition, namely to focus on professions of faith and worship attendance, have widespread ecclesiastical endorsement as a sufficient standard for determining "best interests." Nor is it clear that the jurisdictional committee followed a clear path to establishing and applying that definition to all of the bishops in their areas. Nor is there any evidence that the working definition of "best interests" was constructed or applied contextually, based upon demographic or ethnographic profiles of districts or pastoral charges within the annual conferences of the episcopal areas. In the end, these flaws were so serious as to be fatal to the process that led the committee to its decision and recommendation. The Judicial Council can only review the process—not the merits of the findings or conclusions—in determining the merits of the bishop's appeal in this case.
On that basis, I concur with the majority in this matter.
William B. Lawrence
Mahle, J. Kabamba Kiboko, and
Dennis Blackwell join this concurrence.
Concur In Part and Dissent In Part
Justice to a bishop is justice to all bishops. Respect for the rights of one of them is respect for the rights of all of them. I concur with the majority opinion that in the not-so-clear process that attended the decision to retire involuntarily the appellant bishop, there was a mix-up in protecting his rights which cast a shadow on the propriety of the procedure followed. As a case of first impression under the 2008 Discipline, we cannot afford to terminate a bishop with a cloud of doubt on the action taken. But I respectfully dissent that there were numerous errors in violation of fair process and that there was inability to articulate the "best interests of the bishop and/or Church."
The South Central Jurisdiction Conference (SCJC) Committee on Episcopacy (COE) performed a herculean task, visibly beyond the call of duty. Ironically, their zeal in safeguarding the rights of the appellant, on one hand, and promoting the interest of the Church, on the other hand, led to some sort of confusion and misunderstanding. Much of the confusion is owed to the failure to stick to the provisions of ¶ 4083(a) and the unnecessary added resort to ¶413 by borrowing from the procedure in ¶ 362.2. I hold that ¶ 408.3(a) is self-sufficient, with adequate safeguards for fair process. True it is that ¶ 413 deals with complaints against bishops. It is not, however, an exclusive provision. It neither invalidates, supersedes, makes inoperative nor precludes the resort to ¶ 408.3 on involuntary retirement of a bishop. That the General Conference of 2012 amended ¶ 408.3 by adding or inserting a sentence stating "This action may or may not be taken because of the performance of the bishop and the reason for this action must be clearly stated in the report of the Committee" lends greater credence to the vitality of said paragraph. There is no conflict between ¶ 408.3(a), as amended, and ¶ 413.
While both relate to actions against bishops, the first refers to the remedy for involuntary retirement, while the second provides for the manner of processing a complaint. The first is administrative in nature and is initiated by the COE of a jurisdictional or central conference; the second may be either administrative or judicial, and the complaint may be triggered by any person, as the Discipline is silent on who may be the complainant. In this instance, there is no particular complaint but a move that started with the episcopacy committee authorized under ¶ 408.3(a) which requires no complaint. The Discipline provides, among others, these procedures that may lead to the termination of bishops under Section III of the 2008 Discipline. The COE had a choice and it opted to choose ¶ 408.3(a), which is a milder process for a bishop than ¶ 413. Did the Committee on Episcopacy follow fair process? While there is no direct mention of fair process in ¶ 408.3(a), it cannot be gainsaid that in all disciplinary, administrative or judicial proceedings, fair process is a mandatory standard. It is ingrained in our justice system. For the clergy orders, like deacons and elders, there is fair process in administrative hearings (¶¶ 358.3, 362.2) and fair process in judicial proceedings (¶ 2701).
For the bishops, parallel but distinct procedures also exist. Fair process for them is expressly provided in ¶ 413 to apply the provisions of ¶ 362.2. Fair process is also afforded the bishops in ¶ 408.3(a). Basically, gleaned from all these provisions, the sine qua non requirements of fair process are sufficient written notice of the intended action and a fair hearing by a competent, authorized body. ¶ 408.3(a), as amended, reads in full: "¶ 408. Termination of office - An elder who is serving as a bishop up to the time of retirement shall have the stature of a retired bishop. "3. Involuntary Retirement - a) A bishop may be placed in the retired relation regardless of age by a two-thirds vote of the jurisdictional or central conference committee on episcopacy, if, after not less than a thirty-day notice in writing is given to the affected bishop and hearing, such relationship is found by said committee to be in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church. This action may or may not be taken because of the performance of the bishop and the reason for this action must be clearly stated in the report of the committee. Appeal from this action may be made to the Judicial Council with the notice provisions being applicable as set forth in ¶ 2716."
Thus, the safeguards of fair process in or before placing a bishop in involuntary retirement utilizing ¶ 408.3(a) are:
(a) Committee on episcopacy's written notice to the bishop of at least thirty days;
(b) a hearing;
(c) finding with proof by said committee that involuntary retirement is in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church;
(d) clear statement of the reason for such action in the committee report;
(e) two-thirds vote required for the committee action and
(f) availability of appeal to the Judicial Council.
Now to the actual procedure taken by the COE to determine if it has complied fully with the requirements of par 408.3(a). On the requisite notice, the committee sent appellant a written notice on June 8, 2012 for a July 10, 2012 hearing which was superseded by a June 15, 2012 written notice for the July 16, 2012 hearing. Both notices gave appellant 30 days or more to prepare. The hearing at St. Luke's UMC in Oklahoma City started at 2pm of July 16, 2012 and lasted until the following day, July 17. All the members of the Committee attended. Appellant appeared with an advocate, a retired elder in full connection from the North Texas Annual Conference. The advocate read a Statement of Objection to Jurisdiction, claiming that the reliance on par. 408.3(a) is misplaced, that the COE had committed serious and prejudicial errors of church law. (Appendix A of Appellant's Brief). Appellant, through counsel, was duly heard. Following the extensive review of documents and deliberations, with two observers from the General Commission on Religion and Race, the Committee voting came.
Twenty-four members voted for appellant's involuntary retirement, 4 voted against and 2 abstained. A crucial point in the matter of fair process under par. 408.3(a) is the determination of what is "in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church." Appellant hardly dwelt on this, having devoted the bulk of his argument on errors of church law, preferring ¶ 413 over ¶ 408.3(a), which he insists, is unconstitutional. The Council was unable to agree with that proposition in our Memorandum 1229. We are left with the explanation of the Committee concerning best interests. At the hearing of this appeal, the COE chair bared the view that involuntary retirement is a more graceful path for appellant. If they had followed the route of a complaint under ¶ 413, it could end in appellant's surrender papers. Under ¶ 408.3(a), they considered the protection of the dignity of both appellant and the Church. The said chairman also confirmed the submission in their Brief that throughout the Committee discussions, what was best for the Church surfaced as a prime objective.
They understood that effective episcopal leadership is necessary for the Jurisdiction to arrest the decline in worship attendance and professions of faith. Appellant had come into disagreements with many church leaders, affecting also the morale of the clergy. The Committee did not believe that appellant's leadership deficiencies could be corrected or improved with time and/or assistance. His gifts can be best used in some other way of service. The Committee cited and submitted substantial documents, transcripts and other evidence to back up their action. Anent the 20-page Statement of Reasons, mailed to appellant on June 27, 2012, he does not disavow receiving them. No less than nine of these primary reasons are clearly spelled out in the COE Brief but they need not be reproduced here to safeguard his dignity. Finally, did the SCJC COE fail to demonstrate that the articulation of episcopal needs for the North Texas Annual Conference was determined by said annual conference committee on episcopacy? It is contended that under ¶ 637, the Annual Conference episcopacy committee is the body authorized to report and articulate the needs of that conference to the jurisdictional COE and to make recommendations to appropriate bodies. Further, under ¶ 412, the jurisdictional COE is required to establish and implement processes providing for full and formal evaluation of each active bishop. The flaw in this last contention is that, again, the chosen authorized process is under ¶ 408.3(a), not any other mode. It suffices that the COE has hewed closely to the procedures of ¶ 408.3(a) to pass muster the test of validity for episcopal involuntary retirement.
Ruben T. Reyes
I dissent from the majority opinion that reverses the decision of the South Central Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy in the involuntary retirement of the resident bishop of the North Texas Annual Conference. The Committee properly exercised its authority to use the provisions of ¶ 408.3(a) 2008 Discipline. In the matter before the Council on appeal the record is clear and unambiguous that the bishop was afforded fair process. The bishop was provided written and oral notice of the proposed action at least thirty (30) days in advance; participated with supporting clergy in an extensive hearing before the entire Committee with the opportunity to present live and deposed testimony and exhibits in support of the responding bishop's position; findings were made in support of the decision that the bishop be involuntarily retired; and, such retirement was in the best interest of the church and/or the bishop. A clear statement of the reasons for such action was outlined in the Committee's report to the Jurisdictional Conference.
The Committee voted 24 for, 4 against, and 2 abstentions to voluntarily retire the bishop. The report and findings of the Committee were sustained by the Jurisdictional Conference. The approval of the report was taken after the bishop was granted unprecedented privilege to present his defense in opposition to the involuntary retirement before the entire body of the Jurisdictional Conference. In determining the best interest of the church and/or the bishop, the Committee should be permitted to draw such reasonable inferences from the testimony and exhibits as they feel are justified when considered with the aid of the knowledge which they possess in common with each other. They should be permitted to make deductions and reach conclusions which reason and common sense lead them to draw from the facts which they found to have been established by the testimony and evidence in the matter. The "best interest" standard is appropriately left to their collective wisdom based on the facts and evidence. Therefore, as the appeal is not a trial de novo, based upon the record before the Judicial Council, the authority submitted by the Appellant and the Appellee, the oral argument and extensive questioning by the members of the Council, I would AFFIRM the decision of the Episcopacy Committee and SUSTAIN the involuntary retirement of the bishop. Accordingly, I dissent from the majority.
Kurt G. Glassco